The livability of our downtown streets can no longer be guided by those who see them only as a means to get through as quickly as possible.
By Aaron Newman
Published May 17, 2012
I believe the one-way system was a product of its time, and although there are many reasons for Hamilton's downtown economic woes, one-way streets are a contributing factor.
My Grandfather started Newman's Menswear in 1927 as a neighbourhood store, in what was then known as the Strand block. Two-way streets with streetcars ruled the day. It was a flourishing area, complete with two banks, two pharmacies, a movie theatre, restaurant, two car dealerships and a bowling alley.
The conversion happened in 1956, and it is fair to say that the effect at the time was minimal. Change didn't happen overnight! It's here that you have to look at the whole objective of one-way streets and the reasons for their implementation.
They were instituted for ease and quickness of travel. The car was seen as a tool of quick and easy transfer from either side of this city, and for all intents and purposes it worked. Here is the cause-and-effect aspect. Their objective worked: you speed through, you don't slow down, stay and enjoy!
As the decade moved into the 1960s and the 1970s, the city's emphasis on heavy and light industry started to change, as with any north American industrial cities. Couple that with the general demographic shift to the suburbs, Hamilton started to drastically change.
I believe that the one-way system was just another piece of that complex shift in our downtown. It made it easy to live outside the city and get in and out much faster and easier. One-way streets in our city helped hollow out the core, and still do to this day.
As a retailer in the extended core who happens to sit on this one-way highway, I believe that I have great firsthand experience with the effects of one-way streets.
At first glance, one would think that the traffic volume passing my door on this highway and the exposure that that affords would be great, and I might agree! But the oft-mentioned truth is that the true traffic is 50 percent less than first assumed. It's only one way! I'm only receiving cars and people going westbound, what about those people going east?
This point brings me to another forgotten truth about one-way streets. You only see our great city from one angle, one perspective. Think of how much we miss or don't see at all - my store included!
Drive down any of the recently converted streets, especially in the new direction, and you will see what I mean. It's fantastic! Your mind and your eyes have never seen the cityscape like this.
Multiply that by everybody in and around Hamilton, not to mention those coming into Hamilton for the first time, and suddenly your image and thoughts about our city change, and in a positive way.
One-way streets are not "area building" friendly and not business friendly. How can a system whose main and sole reason is speed through downtown, "get passed downtown as quickly as possible" be good for the core and subsequent businesses - let alone create and foster new development?
Our system does everything in its power to move you outside and around the core, not slow you down and enjoy, or make it easy for people to get to you.
Try telling someone to find our store from the west end. It's a complex set of directions, wastes both time and gas, creates more travel and really thwarts our accessibility to customers. For a retailer, making it hard for a customer is never a good thing!
With all this recent talk about creating and fostering more walkable and more liveable cities, one-way streets really fly in the face of this. How can you expect a young family, or anybody to invest both in living and working on a four-lane highway?
Take Cannon Street. How can you expect that street to prosper when it's so separated from livability?
Car friendly? I actually think that two-way streets are more car friendly. They create the ease of use we so sorely lack in this town. For the sake of maybe a few extra minutes - and I think maybe two to three minutes is what we're talking about - it's not a big deal!
Perfect example: when King Street has a lane closure, traffic rarely slows down that much. I contend that we could lose at the very least one of those lanes, convert back to two-way and have full-day metered dedicated parking and this would never cause the mess we always hear about.
For those business owners in the extended core who, for whatever reason, may be uneasy about two-way conversion, I say this: slowing traffic down, getting both directions seeing you, having a cityscape emerge, having a more liveable cityscape, will induce at the very least more of a chance for regrowth.
Two-way streets will help create a place where businesses and families will want to invest and live downtown. It will make it easier for people to find you, get to you, see you.
They will make your area a place of much greater desire, a place that will make them slow down and enjoy. Your business will eventually reap that reward. More investment, more people staying and living around your business.
Not so with the status quo. We've seen this movie, and its plot is all too familiar.
It's time for those of use who live and work in the core to take back the parameters which govern our livability. This downtown can no longer be guided by those who live outside the core and see it only as a means to get through as quickly as possible.
That, in a nutshell, is what we've created: a place to get through as quickly as possible. That's the legacy of one-way streets and they have worked well to achieve it.
Editor's note: This essay is part of a series on the future role and design of our downtown streets. We encourage Hamiltonians to submit well-written, thoughtful and evidence-based essays that move the discussion forward. Please send submissions to email@example.com.